As a once avid scuba diver, I used to pride myself on my ability to recognize and name many fish and other denizens of the reef and deep. I was a diver who was perfectly content to hang out on one spot on the reef to see how many fish, eels, turtles, snails, worms, sponges, etc., I could spy rather than trying to cover a lot of sea turf. The blue spine unicorn fish (“Tataga,” on Guam; and “Kala,” in Hawaii) was an old friend, seen on almost every dive. I knew this fish more for its boldness (he’ll come right up to a diver and point his one-corn right at you — sadly, waiting for a hand-out), than its culinary delights. But when I first saw kala in the fish markets here, I had a strong memory of feasting on this at a barbecue on Guam. I remembered it had a tough leathery skin that could be put over direct flame without scorching, and which peeled away from firm white flesh. It was also recorded in my brain that it was rather delectable.
This is how I was accustomed to seeing a unicorn fish — pointed, blank stare and teeth bared.
Alas, somewhere in the last 10 years since I left home, my memory has been failing me. I got his name right, the tough leathery skin is right, the firm white flesh is right. But the taste . . . hmmm, here my memory seems to have led me astray. This is a fish for the very strong of heart! It has a distinct and pungent smell — earthy and gamey, even when cooked with Alaea salt, lemon peel and juice, garlic and parsley stuffed in its cavity. I think this would probably be better prepared in a stew with coconut milk, lemongrass, onions and other equally robust flavors to mellow out its racy flavors. Fortunately we did have on hand a punchy Garlic Salsa that married well with the kala’sfustiness.
So what fish waxed so fondly in memory? I’ve thought about that a lot since The Night of the Unicorn, and searching through the mists of memory I now believe it was a napoleon wrasse, which was also part of that same barbecue and which also sports a bump on its head, albeit a much less showy one (photo on Wikipedia).
(adapted from Fish Dishes of the Pacific from the Fishwife)
2 heads of garlic
3 TBL. olive oil
2 serrano chilies, seeded and sliced
28 oz. of canned, organic diced tomatoes (reserve juice)
1 TBL. red wine vinegar
sea salt and ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. raw sugar
2 large sprigs cilantro, minced
Peel garlic cloves, and cut largest cloves in half, so that all pieces are about the size of a marble. Gently cook garlic cloves in olive oil over low heat until they begin to soften. Add chilies, and cook until you can start to smell the chilies.
Turn heat up to medium, and add tomatoes and half of the reserved juice, as well as vinegar, sea salt and pepper. Cook, uncovered for 10 minutes, or until tomatoes change to a dark burgundy color, and most of the liquid evaporates. Add sugar and cilantro, and cook another 5 minutes. Cover and let cool.
Serve with any grilled meat or game. Or gamey fish.